History of the award
In 1957, the first winner of the Miles Franklin Literary Award was announced: Patrick White, for his novel Voss. White received £500 and declared “I am going to buy a hi-fi set and a kitchen stove."
Voss, which describes a doomed attempt to cross the Australian continent, set the bar for the Award high. Over the years, the prize has been awarded to novels describing life in suburbia, compulsive gamblers, Australians abroad – but always true to the terms of Miles Franklin’s will: ‘[the] prize shall be awarded for the Novel for the year which is of the highest literary merit and which must present Australian Life in any of its phases …’.
The emphasis on Australian life has caused confusion and sometimes even outrage. Australian Frank Moorhouse was deemed ineligible for consideration in 1993 because his novel Grand Days was set in Europe in the 1920s. (Moorhouse later won the award in 2001 for Dark Palace.) On the other hand, non-Australians are eligible if writing about Australian themes. English writer Matthew Kneale was the first non-Australian to be shortlisted for the Miles Franklin with his book English Passengers in 2000.
The terms of Miles’ will also stipulate that if no novel is deemed to be of sufficiently high standard, the Award can be given to a play – though this has never happened.
Miles Franklin's will: click on a page to see a larger image
Alex Miller, twice the recipient of the Award, suggested in 2010 that the Miles Franklin was losing relevance. But the same year saw the Award gain huge publicity when Peter Temple received the prize for Truth. A crime novel had won Australia’s most prestigious literary prize and the world’s media wanted to know more.
2010 also marked the beginning of the revitalisation of the Miles Franklin Award by its trustees, Perpetual as Trustee. 2011 has seen the prize money for the Award raised to $50,000 and the launch of Miles Franklin’s new online home.
The move of the ceremony away from its traditional home in Sydney is another part of ongoing efforts to connect more Australians with Miles’ legacy.
We can’t know what Miles Franklin would have thought of any of the books to have won the Award. But surely she would approve of its ongoing role in sparking passionate, opinionated debate about the nature of Australian literature today – and tomorrow.